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Fresh start for the new year

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri

Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (third from right), who is also the home minister, cuts pulut kuning during the handing over ceremony of the Home Ministry Strategic Plan Document 2017 and the launch of the Rela Aid Mission in Putrajaya yesterday. Others are (from left) the ministry’s secretary-general, Datuk Alwi Ibrahim, Deputy Home Minister Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohammed, Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar, Immigration director-general Datuk Seri Mustafar Ali and National Anti-Drugs Agency director-general Datuk Abd Halim Mohd Hussin.
— Picture by Zuraneeza Zulkifli

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Commission plays down abuse against Rohingya

YANGON — A commission probing violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state yesterday denied security forces carried out a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya, days after a video emerged showing police beating civilians from the Muslim minority.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya — a group loathed by many among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority — have fled a military operation in the northwestern state, launched after deadly attacks on police posts in October.

Dozens have died in the crackdown, while escapees now in neighbouring Bangladesh have claimed they suffered rape, arson, murder and torture at the hands of police or soldiers.

Myanmar’s government, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has said the allegations are invented and has resisted mounting international pressure to protect the minority.

A state-appointed commission set up to investigate the violence released its interim report yeysterday, dismissing claims troops and police have embarked on a campaign to force the Rohingya out of the country.

Its interim findings come days after the government detained multiple police officers over a video showing policemen beating and kicking Rohingya villagers.

The footage, shot by one of officers, has sparked outrage and undermined the government’s blanket denials that soldiers and police have carried out rights abuses.

The size of the “Bengali” population, mosques and religious buildings in the unrest-hit area “are proof that there were no cases of genocide and religious persecution”, it said in a statement carried in state media.

Myanmar refuses to recognise the Rohingya as one of the country’s ethnic minorities, instead describing them as Bengalis — or illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh — even though many have lived in Myanmar for generations.

The commission also found “insufficient evidence” of rape but added it was still looking into claims security forces committed arson, illegal arrests and torture of the Rohingya.

It blamed the unrest on foreign-backed extremists, whom it said had attacked security forces in October to harm “the sovereignty of the state with the intention of igniting riots and conflicts”.

Legal action has been taken against 485 people arrested during the army’s subsequent clearance operation, it added, without giving further details.

Chris Lewa, from the Arakan project, said the commission had failed to properly investigate the widespread allegations of rape and rights abuses.

“The methodology is not credible, it’s totally unprofessional,” she said.

“There is no corroboration from the villagers they are meant to have talked to.”

The commission has faced opposition from across the spectrum since it was announced last month — the second body created by Suu Kyi to try to heal the simmering religious divide in Rakhine state.

Rights activists dismissed the 13-member commission as toothless, pointing out it is headed by the vice-president, a former army general. — AFP

Indonesia suspends military cooperation with Australia

JAKARTA — Indonesia has suspended military cooperation with Australia after teaching materials deemed offensive to Jakarta were found at an Australian army base, officials said yesterday, in a fresh flare-up of tensions.

Cooperation including joint exercises and education and exchange programmes was put on hold last month after a visiting Indonesian officer raised concerns about the materials, officials from both countries said.

Authorities did not say what exactly caused offence.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported it related to posters of West Papua, an eastern Indonesian province where a low-level insurgency has been simmering for decades.

“Military cooperation with Australian forces has been suspended temporarily due to technical matters,” Indonesian military spokesman Wuryanto said, without giving details, but added he hoped the problem would “be resolved soon”.

It was just the latest row between the key allies and neighbours, whose relationship has been beset in recent years by disputes over Jakarta’s execution of Australian drug smugglers and Canberra’s hardline policy of turning migrant boats back to Indonesia.

Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne said Indonesia had notified Canberra about the suspension, adding in a statement: “Some interaction between the two defence organisations has been postponed until the matter is resolved.”

She said it related to “some teaching materials and remarks” at an Australian army language training facility, without giving details.

Indonesian newspaper Kompas said the row erupted after a visiting special forces instructor found teaching materials he deemed disrespectful towards his country’s armed forces, as well as materials he thought insulted Indonesia’s founding philosophy of “Pancasila”.

The ABC reported that the instructor had complained about training posters of West Papua displayed at the Australian Special Forces base in the western city of Perth last November, citing unidentified sources.

Papua’s independence movement enjoys support among activists abroad, including in Australia. Indonesia keeps tight control over the area and is sensitive about any perceived attempts by foreign governments or NGOs to intervene.

Payne said the chief of the Australian Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, wrote to his Indonesian counterpart, General Gatot Nurmantyo, promising that the matter would be addressed.

She said an investigation was continuing and pledged: “We will work with Indonesia to restore full cooperation as soon as possible.”

Yohanes Sulaiman, an Indonesian military expert, said the suspension was significant but predicted it would not last long as cooperation was vital on matters such as security and trade.

“Both countries need each other,” he said. — AFP

Mexico ‘regrets’ Ford decision to scrap new plant

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s government on Tuesday lamented Ford’s decision to scrap a new plant project following criticism from US President-elect Donald Trump and said the company would pay back any expenses.

Ford’s decision to cancel the $1.6 billion (RM7.2 billion investment in the state of San Luis Potosi is a big blow to Mexico, which has been one of the main targets of Trump’s protectionist rhetoric.

“The Mexican government regrets the decision of the Ford Motor Company to cancel the investment project in San Luis Potosi and it has assured the return by the company of any expenditures made by the state government to facilitate this investment,” the statement said.

Ford said it would instead invest $700 million (RM3,150 million) over the next four years to expand its Flat Rock Assembly Plant in Michigan to build electric and self-driving vehicles.

The Mexican peso, which has fallen since Trump’s election, dropped by 1.41 per cent following Ford’s announcement.

Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo said the government was notified by Ford about its decision only “minutes” before it was made public.

Trump, who takes office on Jan 20, has slammed US firms for moving jobs to Mexico and has vowed to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta).

Earlier, US automaker General Motors became the latest multinational to end up in Trump’s line of fire, via Twitter as usual, with the president-elect threatening to impose a tariff on GM’s imports of a small number of Mexican-made Chevy Cruze cars to the US.

But Guajardo downplayed concerns that other US companies might follow Ford’s lead.

He said the automaker’s situation was “very particular” and that its decision was based on falling demand for smaller cars that would have been made in San Luis Potosi in addition to pressure from Trump.

Former president Felipe Calderon chimed in, saying on Twitter that Ford’s decision “hurts Mexico, but also American consumers and its shareholders because the company will lose competitiveness.”

Mexico’s economy ministry argued that investments in Mexico have helped keep jobs in the United States.

“The jobs generated in Mexico have contributed to keeping manufacturing jobs in the United States that would otherwise have disappeared in the face of Asian competition,” it said.

Mexico’s free trade deals with various countries and proximity to the US market have made it a top destination for international automakers, turning the country into a top producer and exporter of vehicles.

Guajardo told Milenio television that Mexico was ready to sit down with Trump’s administration and Canada to improve Nafta and “realise that we are competing against other regions in the world, not necessarily against each other in North America.” — AFP

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Obama moves to stop Trump gutting signature healthcare law

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama made a short but politically charged trip from the White House to Capitol Hill yesterday, calling allied lawmakers to arms in defence of his signature healthcare reforms.

Obama’s eight-year drive to extend medical coverage to tens of millions of Americans will come under sustained assault when President-elect Donald Trump takes office on Jan 20 with Republican majorities in both house of Congress.

In a preemptive strike, the outgoing president was due to meet Senate and House Democrats, “principally (to) discuss how to counter the stated Republican objective of repealing the Affordable Care Act,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

Obama’s rare legislative pilgrimage coincides with a duelling visit to the Congress by Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

“We’re focused on repealing and replacing Obamacare,” Pence said on Tuesday. “We look forward to legislation that will give us the tools to roll back the avalanche of red tape and regulation that have been stifling American jobs.”

After a crushing election loss, Democrats may have limited options for stalling reforms without significant Republican defections.

They also face criticism that Obama’s reforms have led to rising insurance premiums and a string of technical problems.

But while Republican opposition to Obamacare is clear, their prescription to fix it is not.

House Speaker Paul Ryan has proposed a tax credit system as a possible replacement, but the costs to government and individuals remains vague.

Some Republicans have suggested repealing Obamacare now and replacing it at later, perhaps after the next election.

But the White House is betting that Americans voters will react with fury if Trump moves to strip millions of coverage with no viable alternative.

They are hoping that public outcry could force Trump to confront some of the more ideologically driven reforms proposed by his own party.

The president-elect is seen as highly sensitive about his public standing.

He has been quick to tweet defensively about perceived slights or reminders that despite his electoral college victory in the November elections, his rival Hillary Clinton still won the popular vote by almost three million ballots.

Trump comes to office with 48 per cent of Americans polled by Gallup believing he is handling the transition effectively.

That is far less than the 75 per cent approval Obama enjoyed at the same point or George W. Bush’s 65 per cent.

Republican legislators are eager to take charge after eight years spent fighting against Obama’s policies.

But some are wary that white working class Americans, who delivered them to office, may bear the brunt of any reforms.

Gutting Obamacare could also have knock-on effects for funding healthcare for retirees, a group essential to the Republican Party’s survival.

In these two issues, Democrats see pressure points they hope to exploit in defence of Obama’s plan.

“It’s not surprising to me that there are some Republicans who are now a little queasy about the prospect of the impact that repealing Obamacare would have on their own supporters,” said Earnest.

“We know there are people all across the country who benefit from this law, who are protected by this law, whose lives have been saved by this law.”

Obama is believed to have put this point directly to Trump when they talked soon after the election.

Privately many Democrats admit their best hope now could be offering Trump some form of political victory, so long as the plan survives more or less intact.
— AFP

Five Indian states go to polls in test for Modi

NEW DELHI — Five Indian states representing more than 160 million voters will go to the polls in the next two months, the election commission said yesterday, in a key test for the prime minister after his shock move to ban all high-value notes.

They include India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh, where Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is hoping to claw back power after performing well in national elections in 2014.

The elections will begin on Feb 4, nearly three months after Modi announced he was scrapping nearly 86 per cent of all Indian currency, a move aimed at curbing widespread tax evasion.

The northern states of Punjab and Uttarakhand, Goa in the west and Manipur in the northeast will also elect new governments in the elections, which go on until March 8, with results due three days later.

“All five states will go to election in one go,” Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi told reporters in New Delhi.

“The commission and government machinery are in full readiness to conduct the elections in a free, fair and transparent manner.”

Modi’s BJP needs to win state elections to gain more seats in the nation’s upper house of parliament, which has blocked reforms seen as crucial to fuelling the economic growth it has promised voters.

Most members of the upper house are indirectly elected by state legislatures.

Modi’s BJP currently rules in Goa and Punjab while the opposition Congress is in power in Manipur and Uttarakhand.

The party held power until 2002 in Uttar Pradesh, where the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) has been roiled by a power struggle in recent weeks that could weaken its grip on power.

The vote there is being seen as the first major test of Modi after his assault on
tax evasion.

Initial praise for the Indian leader’s bold move has given way to criticism over the slow pace of rolling out new currency, which is widely expected to hit economic growth, although popular support remains high.

Voting in Uttar Pradesh will begin on Feb 11 and take place in seven stages.

The announcement follows a Supreme Court ruling this week banning politicians from using religion and caste to win votes.

India is officially secular but politicians from parties including the BJP and SP have been accused of exploiting religion and caste to garner votes. — AFP

Gunmen storm jail, free 132 inmates

MANILA — Armed men linked to a breakaway Muslim rebel group attacked a jail in strife-torn southern Philippines yesterday killing one guard and freeing 132 inmates.

Planned prison break:

A two-hour long firefight broke out when more than 100 armed men attacked the jail in North Cotabato, overwhelming prison guards and giving inmates an opportunity to escape.

The early morning attack was led by a breakaway group of the main Muslim rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

“It’s to rescue their comrades under our custody. It was a rescue operation,” jail warden Peter John Bonggat said.

“The (inmates) took chances because of the volume of fire … They used their bedding, piled them on top of each other to escape.”

Military and police officials would not immediately confirm the identity of the attackers or the motive for the prison break.

The southern region of Mindanao has been plagued by a decades-old Muslim separatist insurgency as well as a number of criminal gangs, some of whom have pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS) fighters.

Mindanao is the ancestral homeland of the Muslim minority in the largely Catholic Philippines. — AFP

Wife didn’t know hubby terrorist

ISTANBUL — The wife of a man suspected of slaughtering 39 revellers at an Istanbul nightclub has claimed she had “no idea” her husband was an Islamic State (IS) terrorist.

In her statement to Turkish police, she revealed:

They are married with two children.

The suspect boarded a plane in Kyrgyzstan with his wife and children and landed in Turkey on Nov 20 last year.

On Dec 29, they left Konya to travel by road to Istanbul to look for jobs and have been living in a rented apartment since.

Her husband, who is from Central Asia, told her they were travelling to Konya, Turkey, in search of jobs.

She discovered he had murdered 39 only when she saw it on television.

Intensified manhunt:

When police released pictures of the suspect, his neighbours in Konya called a police hotline and identified him, leading investigators to the family home.

Police raided three different apartments in the central Turkish town of Konya, but found them to be empty.

One of the premises was believed to have been rented by the suspect and his family, while the others housed non-Turkish citizens.

The occupants of the other apartments left following the New Year’s Eve attack, raising fears they were accomplices.

The agent who rented the apartment to the suspect was questioned by police.

Police detained two foreigners at Istanbul’s main airport over suspected links to the attack.

The duo were taken to Istanbul police headquarters for questioning.

Police seized their phones and luggage before they were taken away.
— Agencies

jailbreakers

Bragging selfies after prison escape

MANAUS (Brazil) — More than 100 escaped prisoners in Brazil are on the run after breaking out during a bloody prison riot which left 56 inmates dead.

The incident has sparked criticism of chronic overcrowding in the country’s jails.

Daringly stupid

Police conducted roadblocks and increased patrols around the city of Manaus to hunt down inmates who escaped from the prison during a 17-hour riot on Monday.

One inmate identified as Brayan Bremer posted a selfie of himself and other prisoners on his Facebook shortly after they escaped by tearing down a wall.

Bremer, who is serving a sentence for armed robbery, then posted a series of photos on Facebook and Twitter bragging his escape.

His post went viral in Brazil.

The first post shows Bremer in a Bayern Munich football shirt covered in mud alongside a fellow fugitive with the message: “On the run from jail.”

Another showed Bremer with four others in a similar jungle.

Other developments

The riot is the deadliest since the 1992 prison massacre at the Carandiru prison in Sao Paulo where 111 inmates were killed.

State police and army officials on holiday were recalled to join the manhunt for escaped inmates.

Only 54 inmates had been recaptured.

Authorities rented a refrigerated truck to store bodies, while medical examiners tried to identify the remains.

Anguish for family

Families are gathered outside the morgue in Manaus, waiting to discover if their loved ones were alive.

A morgue employee emerged from time to time to read from a list of those confirmed dead.

Heartbreak for family as many of those slain were beheaded or dismembered.

Overhaul the prison system

Brazil’s justice minister Alexandre de Moraes proposed an overhaul of the penal system to tackle chronic prison overcrowding.

Moraes said the solution to Brazil’s chronic prison violence was not just to keep opening new prisons.

“We need to make sure those who deserve to be in jail stay there and those who committed minor crimes get out,” he said.

“If not, we are only providing organised crime groups with new soldiers.” — Various

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Crucial to build resilience against security threats

TERRORISM and radicalisation will be an inescapable part of our lives from here on, and the main threats for 2017 and beyond should be divided into two parts.

The first is the foreign fighter blowback. With the so-called Islamic State (IS) suffering reverses on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, many Southeast Asian fighters will return home to Indonesia and Malaysia. They may also seek new safe havens such as in the southern Philippines.

In addition, they will seek to leverage issues which give them propaganda mileage that can reinvigorate their social media campaigns — such as the plight of the Rohingya.

And we should not be so quick to assume that it is simply Southeast Asian fighters we will need to reckon with. One cannot discount the possibility of a wider movement of battle-hardened Uighur veterans who, for various reasons, cannot return to their home countries elsewhere.

For some sense of what is likely to happen with these returnees, we can look to Europe, where Western fighters have been trickling home for some time now.

Many are embittered by their experiences and disillusioned by the depravity of the IS; but some have come back even more determined to wreak havoc, and even more radicalised.

There is no reason to suppose that a similarly mixed scenario should not play out in Southeast Asia.

The second threat is radicalisation in general. We have to accept that this is not simply an issue of Islamist radicalisation. Religious revivalism is increasingly present in other major faiths.

Radicals inhabit the fringes of all these. And the sobering fact is that we live in a future where all sorts of individuals are going to be “radicalised” in some form or other — even those without strong religious convictions.

We should not forget that we have had an individual, a Singapore citizen, who has tried to join Kurdish militia to fight IS. Whatever his motivations — and there is some suggestion of alienation and wanting to do good — we need to understand that, in future, all sorts of people are going to want to fight for causes, or else take up some form of muscular activism.

This will be a rising trend and these impulses, if not managed, will lead to schisms within societies.

Terror networks can be interdicted and taken down. Security services are actually pretty good at this sort of thing. However, what all of us need to get our heads around is the rising tide of intolerance and, more precisely, tolerance for intolerance.

This is the second big issue we need to face. It is a phenomenon that did not start in Southeast Asia, but it is creeping in. Traditional forms of syncretistic religious practice that have existed here for centuries (if not longer) are being replaced by a more hardline, less inclusive type of observance.

This type of feeling is fuelled by social media. As Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said last year: “We now live in a world of fragmented echo chambers — we hear what we want to hear, we ignore what we don’t want to hear, or inconvenient truths are not heard.

“And in fact, from an academic point of view, this leads to a ‘shallowing’ of discourse, a world in which there is a dearth of deep thought and cogent discussion across diverse perspectives. You get a more monochromatic world and a narrowing of minds.”

Singapore will have to maintain its values of multiculturalism and tolerance. These will be increasingly valued in an era where these are becoming rare commodities (and, indeed, in an era where these qualities are persecuted in some quarters).

It is my view that Singapore will increasingly come to be seen as a beacon, not simply on account of good policymaking, which we have, but because parts of the world and our immediate environment are becoming increasingly insalubrious.

The people of Singapore, therefore, should not assume that the “attack”, when it does come, will be a mass-casualty terror incident. This is what our agencies routinely hold drills for.

But the attack might equally be a cyber takedown — either a hacking attempt (and at least one government ministry, the Foreign Affairs Ministry, has suffered a major cyber hack) or some seemingly low-level but nonetheless persistent and insidious cyber effort to chip away at the resilience of our people.

The basic point is that, while keeping a wary lookout for Black Swans, we need to be aware of slow-burn issues too — particularly the kind that amount to attempts to sap away at the will of a people until the nation is itself shrivelled from within.

How do we counter this? Part of the answer lies in critical thinking — the ability to ruthlessly interrogate source material that comes before us. In this, the post-truth era, those digital natives who grow up knowing — either instinctively or through some form of instruction — the difference between the objective facts and fake news will have an intrinsic advantage over others.

A great deal will also boil down to resilience. This could be divided into two kinds. The government has succeeded in hardening the obvious targets in Singapore and, over the past 10 years or so, focusing some attention on the “bounce-backability” of society.

The second part is more tricky but achievable. This has to do with how our society coheres and prevents fissures from forming after an event. This next leg is about a certain toughness and resolve that we need to develop more of.

Consider, for example, what happened after terror incidents and attacks worldwide. The Sydney hostage-taking in December 2014 was followed by a dignified viral campaign, “I’ll Ride with You”, to show solidarity with Australian Muslims. The Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January 2015 saw the ground-up viral campaign “Je Suis Charlie”, while the Jakarta attacks in January last year saw the hashtag #KamiTidakTakut (Bahasa Indonesia for “We are not afraid”) go viral.

Each of these was seen to be a grassroots event and response. Do the people of Singapore have the wherewithal and gumption to rise up, to come together with dignity, resilience and resolve, and with minimal government intervention?
— Today

Dr Shashi Jayakumar is a Senior Fellow and head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at

S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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